A poll conducted last year by LifeWay revealed that pastors of protestant churches were split on the question of the age of the earth. What made it surprising to some was the pastors who were being surveyed were the types of people who usually take the Bible literally. Most rejected evolution, but it was almost an even split over the question of the age of the earth. In fact, the difference between the two sides was within the margin of error. They were more united on other questions. For instance, 82% at least somewhat believed that Adam and Eve were real people, and 72% at least somewhat disagreed with the idea that God used evolution to create everyone, but when it came to the age of the earth, they were split.
This may shock some, but it isn’t just a question between pastors. A number of scientists and academics in the United States believe in a God-created universe, and as crazy as it sounds, quite a few believe in a young earth, too. Yes, while many people view young-earth creationists as the equivalent of flat-earthers, this crazy viewpoint is actually debated and defended from the university campus to national news programs to movie documentaries. In fact, the case for a young earth has spawned a multitude of organizations, websites, think-tanks, research groups, and even museums. The most infamous museum is here, but there are many others, even some outside the United States.
Which brings about the question, why did half of the protestant pastors surveyed doubt the idea of a young earth? Isn’t that what the Bible says? Are they compromising? Were they forced to admit the truth of science? What?
Whether it’s good news or bad news probably depends on your perspective, but what you shouldn’t be–is surprised. “Old-earth creationism,” the idea that God created everything BILLIONS of years ago, has been a common belief in Christianity for a long time. Williams Jennings Bryan, the man who defended creation at the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” was an old-earth creationist. There are Bible scholars, Hebrew scholars, and evidently half of protestant pastors who are in the same boat. Many believe the “days” of creation were not 24-hour periods, but longer periods of time. Others will argue there is a gap of time in the early verses of Genesis, which can account for billions of years. There are other theories as well, but the difference of interpretation among Christians is so profound that in the book “Examine the Evidence,” Ralph Muncaster pleaded with Christians to avoid drawing a line in the sand over the age of the earth. “We should not allow these issues to weaken our presentation of the Bible,” he wrote. And indeed, atheists and other skeptics should realize not every Christian who believes in the Bible, also believes the earth is 6,000 years old.
I used to be an “old-earth creationist” myself and as a result, I am very familiar with the Biblical arguments for it. They were my arguments for awhile, too, and although I have since changed my mind and become a believer in a very young earth, I do sympathize with Muncaster’s point of view. In fact, I think he’s right when he argues that many people in our world will simply tune you out if they think you believe something goofy like the earth is young, or Noah built an ark. This doesn’t mean we young earth creationists should be silent, but we should speak thoughtfully. After all, the vast majority of us have been told the earth is billions of years old for our entire lives and a 6,000 year old earth just sounds weird. In the media, if someone is labeled as a “young earther,” they are seen as losing credibility. Most people consider the age of the earth to be unassailable, and anyone who questions it is like someone who questions if 2 + 2 really equals 4.
So let me be reasonable. The Bible never comes out and says how old the earth is, or on what date it was created. To arrive at the age of the earth via the Bible, you have to infer it. One way is by adding up the ages of the people listed in genealogies in the Bible. Doing so arrives at an age of about 6,000 years. You can find those genealogies in places like Genesis 5, which gives a long list of people with weird names. It details who was born, how long they lived, the names of some of their children, how long they lived, who their children were, and on and on….It isn’t the most riveting stuff in the world. It’s almost like reading a phone book in France in fact, but if you’re trying to figure out how old the earth is according to the Bible, those numbers make a difference. Fortunately, it’s ok if you still can’t pronounce the names.
Key questions remain, however. Did the genealogies skip any generations? (Maybe) And regardless how long people have been around, the big questions surrounding those “days” in Genesis and the possibility of any gaps of time, still remain. How someone answers these questions, will determine where they land on the age of the earth from a Biblical perspective. For a pastor, deciding what you believe is not just a question of the science, but a question of how to correctly interpret the Bible as well.
In some ways, this was incredibly freeing for me. The mere fact a Biblical case could be made for an old-earth, meant I could look at the science without any preconditions at all. I didn’t feel any pressure to accept an old-earth view just to match up with evolution. I could listen to the questions about potassium argon dating, or the findings of helium dating, without having to automatically dismiss one view or the other. The result was I listened to the argument for a young-earth with an open mind, and heaven help me, it made sense. Scientific sense.
So I changed my mind. I became one of the crazy young-earthers. And ironically, I did it precisely because I did NOT have to start with a conclusion. This is not the case for those who are tied down to the idea of evolution, which requires an old age of the earth. It’s not the case for every Christian who is convinced there’s only one possible interpretation of Genesis. But for many of those who take the Bible literally, and for protestant pastors, they can go either way on the age of the earth.